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On Long Island, Standing While Latino is a Crime

Samantha Fredrickson,
New York Civil Liberties Union
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May 18, 2010

Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union, ACLU and LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal lawsuit challenging a town ordinance in Oyster Bay Long Island that unfairly targets immigrant day laborers and essentially criminalizes “standing while Latino.”

Oyster Bay, a town of about 300,000 residents in western Long Island, enacted a law in September that prohibits people from seeking employment on streets, sidewalks and other public spaces. The ordinance, which the Town Board passed under the guise of “public safety,” is really intended to deprive Latino day laborers of their livelihoods. It seeks to drive immigrants from the community.

Our lawsuit maintains that the ordinance violates the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It was filed on behalf of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project, local nonprofit membership organizations that support day laborers and their families.

For nearly two decades, day laborers have gathered in Oyster Bay, particularly the hamlet of Locust Valley and the Village of Farmingdale, to find work. They perform mostly short-term manual labor and construction. For many, it is their sole source of income.

The new ordinance imposes a $250 fine on anyone caught soliciting work on a public sidewalk. It also penalizes motorists who stop to hire day laborers. The law is exacting a devastating toll on day laborers and their families.

One member of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley told us that he has been out of work for months at a time since the ordinance was passed in October. For 14 years, he has visited an empty lot near his home in Locust Valley to solicit work from contractors. But now Oyster Bay officials have formally warned contractors not to pick up day laborers, and law enforcement officials keep the lot under regular surveillance. As a result, he is struggling to put food on the table.

The ordinance is one more troubling example of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has swept across Long Island and much of the country in recent years. Day laborers on Long Island have increasingly faced discrimination, harassment and violence. Another day laborer in Oyster Bay told us that the harassment has spiked since the law’s passage. He says people have thrown cans and bottles at him from passing cars as he attempts to solicit work.

The ordinance violates the free speech rights of citizens and immigrants alike. It criminalizes a wide variety of constitutionally protected speech that presents no threat to traffic safety. All sorts of activity — high school kids soliciting cars for a car wash fundraiser or a neighbor asking a teenager to baby sit — are subject to the ordinance’s criminal penalties.

Our lawsuit requests an immediate freeze on enforcement of the law so that day laborers can find work again. It also asks the court to declare the law unconstitutional.

Courts have struck down similar laws in California and Arizona. We are confident the court will step in and do the right thing here.

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